Interview with The May Birds
By Samuel Spencer
For better or for worse, Folk is back in a big way. Teenagers who ten years ago would have bought an electric guitar and wanted to sound like the Strokes are now buying acoustics and discussing Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons in exalted tones.
I asked Camilla Rockley, pianist for The May Birds, her views on this revival. “I think what it comes down to is that it’s pleasant to listen to. I don’t think it offends everybody and it’s not the sort of thing that anyone would turn off, so from that point of view everyone will listen to it – whether they listen to it again is up to them, but I do think it’s an accessible genre and in terms of lots of different ages, it’s a selling point I think – it doesn’t put anyone off.” That said, there’s a lot that separates The May Birds from certain inexplicably popular mainstream folky acts. Take their first single, ‘Inside Out,’ for instance, a song that veers from Kate Bush to the novels of Margaret Atwood, from folk to, as they put it, “a bit of Take That.”
Their music is not the only thing to set them apart, however. Three of the four band members met at drama school and this has had a strong impact on their sound; “we are used to getting up and being someone different or telling a story or wanting to come across in a certain way – putting a different intention behind something,” says Camilla. Alice Haughton, lead singer and founding member, adds “I always think that all we have to think about is the song, what were saying and what it means. If you focus on that it will be alright, which is what you learn at drama school.” It was this shared dramatic education that really allowed The May Birds to gel as a group. Originally a two piece formed in 2009 by Alice and Ella Parkinson, there was always a strong idea of where they wanted to go with the band. As Alice puts it, “we wrote together for nine months but we always had this idea of what we wanted to create, and I think we realised fairly early on that we wanted a pianist and cello.” This led to Camilla, Alice’s flatmate at the time, joining the band. They then played “one funny little gig in Brighton” before cellist Charlotte joined the group.
“I remember the first time that we met Charlotte,” Camilla begins, “we had all arrived and we were wondering what she was like.” Alice continues, “I’d seen a picture and she had loads of curly hair, and she turned up and I was like ‘you’re so much smaller than I thought.’ She’s tiny! We’re all quite tall and Charlotte’s really small and had this enormous cello on her back. And I caught her on the loo on our very first practice, which always helps to bring a band together.”
From these inauspicious beginnings, they began to play a number of small gigs together, most important of which was at the Soho club ‘Black’s’, a real formative experience for the band. When asked how playing their influenced their sound, Alice answers “we’ve played gigs where people are all around our feet because it’s so full. At these gigs, I think people feel supported, like they’re going somewhere else for an hour, and I think we feel like that when we’re there. It’s partly the environment – it always gets really hot and it’s quite dark.” This has fed into their debut single, which has a definite haunting intimacy to it – I can imagine it being played somewhere dark and cavernous. That is not to say, however, that their music is just suited to these surroundings; as they themselves put it: “I think we’re quite unique in the sense that we can play a drawing room or a festival. I don’t think there are many bands that can actually do that unless it’s one person and their guitar. I’ve never seen a band play completely unplugged with more than one instrument, so I think it’s quite rare and also it’s rare for the music to be effective in more than one type of environment.”
Their gig history is testament to this, having recently played, amongst other places, at Beautiful Days festival (which was “really good, though the sound was quite hard and it was a big tent I felt like we had people’s attention”), for Live and Unsigned (where they were regional winners and play the semi-finals on May 19th), and infamously for the band at the Garage in Islington. “I don’t know why, but we were headlining for all these really noisy boy bands and there was all these pissed students and we were like ‘right, we’re not going to play this song because they’re not going to give a shit. Let’s play our loudest, most raucous, belty songs!’”
In fact, this evolution and adaptation is key to the strength of the band – not only in adapting to their gig surroundings, but also in terms of song-writing. ‘Inside Out’, the debut single, for example, began when the band “arrived at Ella’s flat, and she was wearing her guitar when she opened the door and before the door had shut said ‘I’ve just come up with this.’ Her little guitar motif isn’t on it because she ended up playing the drums, but that’s how it started and I started playing along on the piano,” Camilla tells me. Then the band “had loads of stuff on” and only returned to it the weekend before they were set to record it as a B-side. However, they ended up ‘”feeling so strongly about it” that it became the A-side. “It was quite a development for us, Camilla explains, “we don’t have anything else that sounds like that, partly because of the drum, lack of guitar and the constant beat throughout it, but also I think because of the structure of it as well, it feels quite different.”
So does this mark an evolution for the band? It would seem so. Recording the single gave them their first taste of studio experimentation, with the band even playing the broom in the song. A Live and Unsigned win could mean big things for the band, so I say catch them live whilst they’re still unknown enough to play intimate gigs, because The May Birds may be about to fly into the stratosphere.
Single ‘Inside Out’ out now
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